Bill to shift Arkansas higher-education funding advances

Plan ties money to student gains

A House committee favored a bill Tuesday to shift higher-education funding so that it's based on student productivity rather than enrollment.

House Bill 1209, sponsored by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, would authorize the Arkansas Department of Higher Education to develop rules to implement such a funding model.

The model is a priority for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has pledged an additional $10 million for the state's 11 public universities and 22 public community colleges if the Legislature adopts the funding change. Rather than being based on enrollment, the model would reward institutions that advance students toward degrees.

In testimony before the House Education Committee on Tuesday, Higher Education Director Maria Markham touted the plan as a way for the state to encourage student achievement.

She said other states that have implemented productivity models have seen students achieve more credits and certificates, and the time they needed to earn degrees was shorter.

"We can confidently say that the model has been proven to be successful in other states," Markham said.

The model would reward colleges and universities that bestow more credentials -- like workforce certificates or diplomas -- and help more students progress toward degrees.

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The success of transfer students, the number of students who complete introductory courses, the time it takes students to earn degrees and the credits students have upon completion also would be weighted to determine a school's funding.

The model would reward research and provide more money to small colleges and universities that don't have the same economies of scale as larger schools.

There's also an efficiency gauge that looks at instructional salaries vs. administrative salaries per student and would reward schools that have lower administrative costs.

To ensure stability, a school could lose no more than 2 percent of funding in one year under the bill, although it could earn more than 2 percent, Markham said.

During the House Education Committee's debate, Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, said he was concerned that the productivity model would "make the weak weaker and the strong stronger rather than addressing the needs of the children where you are."

Markham said the aim is "representing all institutional missions and protecting access to areas of the state that are not as prosperous or have a higher population of students that have these risk factors."

She stressed that myriad factors are used to determine productivity.

Groups -- such as underrepresented members of minority groups, and students who need remediation -- would be weighted more heavily in the model, Markham said.

Also during the debate, Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, said she felt uncomfortable voting to authorize a model that isn't formulated yet and that lawmakers have not seen.

"We don't have the model right now, but yet we're referencing what the model is going to do," she said. "Is there a model or is there not at this point in time? Where are we in the development of this because you're speaking like there is a model and it's going to do this and this and this, but yet we don't have a model to look at."

Markham said the model will ultimately have to be approved by the Rules and Regulations Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council, which meets when the Legislature is not in session.

After Tuesday's meeting, Markham said the department has a draft formula that it is testing using historical data to see how funding would be affected.

Della Rosa, who voted in favor of the bill, said she will ultimately have a voice in the matter during the fiscal legislative session, if not the legislative review process. The Legislature meets in fiscal sessions in even-numbered years to set the state's budget for the next fiscal year. Lawmakers are now in the biennial regular session.

"It's going to switch funding from certain schools to other schools so there are going to be winners and losers," she said after the meeting. "I have schools in my district [that] actually, right now, are underfunded so I want to make sure that they aren't hurt even more."

Lowery said he expects the bill to be considered by the House on Thursday and by a Senate committee Tuesday.

A Section on 01/25/2017


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